When recycled ideas are slightly transmuted, déjà vu is wont to set in. Not the pleasant or thrilling kind of déjà vu, but the knowledge that we’ve consumed so much cultural detritus that images appear to be interchangeable. A visual story could just be a mash-up of episodes that reside in the unconscious, with fragments being devoured and regurgitated as trivia. The cinematic status quo is repackaged and repurposed to represent something comforting and familiar, original yet firmly rooted in the past. Essentially, in committing to the limitations of a genre, it’s easy to get boxed in. Relying on a gifted and humorous actor is one way of avoiding this trap, but it’s not entirely effective, as evidenced by Daniel Schechter’s new film.
Supporting Characters takes us to an editing room in Manhattan where Nick (Alex Karpovsky) and his assistant Darryl (Tarik Lowe) are trying to rescue an inept romantic comedy that has bombed with test audiences. From the clips we see, it looks like they’re cutting a terrible rom-com about the antics of a toy dog and an Upper West Side couple — the irony not being lost here. While they’re working on this pap under pressure from the director and production team, they’re also managing thorny relationships, Nick being engaged to the maudlin Amy (Sophia Takal) and Darryl with a finicky girlfriend (Melonie Diaz). Schechter uses the post-production angle to set his film apart with a self-referential, behind-the-scenes element, but it’s mostly window dressing for the traditional narrative of twenty-somethings navigating modern love and speaking to their insecurities. His best move was to call upon Karpovsky to bring his wit and contemplative insights to freshen the mold.
Budding auteur and potential heir to Woody Allen’s neurotic throne, Karpovsky single-handedly holds Supporting Characters together. The title itself is meaningful, as Karpovsky has played a minor role in a handful of festival favorites and is primarily known as “one of the guys in Girls.” As the lead, he’s able to salvage a script that has some conspicuous issues (e.g., do any artsy young New Yorkers refer to their girlfriends as “muffin?”). His delivery is at once smug and endearing, and he will certainly have detractors. But to see him commanding attention and exposing his vulnerability is to witness the emergence of a formidable figure in American independent cinema. He is an anti-star, and there aren’t too many of those hanging around today.
Compliments aside, Supporting Characters is quite inconsistent. Despite the Murderers’ Row of indie players (Lena Dunham, Kevin Corrigan, Melonie Diaz), the cast’s performance as a whole is underwhelming. A cameo by Dunham feels especially dialed in. Her presence in an extra’s role seems like a name-dropping grasp for credibility. For the most part, the first half of the movie is an entirely conventional affair — and a bit of a slog. But the film breaks from the humdrum when, in a surprising turn, it begins to explore the downsides of relationships. The rote and hackneyed motifs gradually fall away as the main characters manifest their weaknesses. By the end, Karpovsky’s verbosity is silenced by humility. Together, we realize that our guarded emotions become apparent when we shut the fuck up for once.